There are so many ways in which refugees’ stories have been told. From video games tracing their journeys towards “refuge,” to art that attempts to package their experiences into tangible, material objects, displaced people have continued to find new ways to articulate their traumas and produce creative material out of it that ends up carrying an unparalleled quality of precarity and ingenuity. One particular form that refugees have been using for decades as a platform for cathartic creative expression, is poetry.
poetry is an antidote
Mahmoud Darwish, for instance, the archetypal exiled poet, has been designated the voice of Palestinian exile, and heralded as the ultimate carrier of that experience. Now, almost half a century later, there are countless poets from all over the world who give voice to their experiences in poems; in short, abrupt stanzas and in long, uninterrupted sequences, in rhythmic verses and, deliberately, in no rhythm at all, because for them, there is no rhythm to trauma. Ultimately, they mould their experiences into a form that is as precarious as the shape that their lives has taken: the poem.
Historically, and particularly in pre-Islamic Arabia, poetry was an oral practice; ephemeral, and yet, containing the possibility and hope of immortality, in the sense that it is passed onto future generations, and later immortalised in written form. Palestinian poet and aid-worker Jehan Bseiso, used that form in a response to a story that moved her, one that, incidentally, was a story about the realities of contemporary migration. Her poem, No Search, No Rescue, unknowingly then, set in motion a series of events that culminated in an entire anthology of poetry by refugees, from the MENA region and beyond.
... [there was] a couple that I met in detention in 2014, who kept trying to cross the sea to get to safety, and they couldn’t make it. In the end, one of them made it and the other one drowned.
Co-edited by Bseiso and US-based author Becky Thompson, and published in late 2019, Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees, gathers hundreds of poems by Arab and African refugees in a 180-page paperback that has become as much a valuable literary work for contemporary times – a century defined by the burgeoning phenomenon of migration – as it is an archive of the experiences of refugees across time and borders.
“I wrote No Search, No Rescue about the story of a couple that I met in detention in 2014, who kept trying to cross the sea to get to safety, and they couldn’t make it. In the end, one of them made it and the other one drowned,” Bseiso tells us. After her poem was read and heard around the world by hundreds, if not thousands, Becky Thompson - who had then been at the front lines of the refugee crisis in Greece, helping people seek asylum - came across it and phoned Bseiso, setting up a meeting with her in a café in Beirut, where Bseiso, who also works with Doctors Without Borders, was based at the time, to discuss the anthology.
Our region is full of breaking news and burning borders.
During that first café outing in Beirut, Jehan and Becky made a call for submissions of poems by immigrants and refugee artists, writers and survivors that then circulated across the Internet and paved the way for the co-editors to go beyond those who do have access to the Internet, to eventually reach refugees in camps, organising workshops to help them write. One of the workshops was held by Thompson in the Moria refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesvos, one of the most overcrowded in the world. Others were taught by Bseiso in Palestine and Lebanon, in an effort to reach first-time poets from across the region and to help them open up about their experiences of displacement and forced migration.
One of late Syrian activist and poet Fadwa Suleiman's poems is featured in the anthology. Photo courtesy of AFP.
Those poems would later be included in the anthology, alongside the work of established poets, like the late Syrian activist and actress Fadwa Suleiman, who was one of most significant voices of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, before she fled to Paris - via Lebanon - in 2012. Also featured in the book are Palestinian-American poet Zeina Azzam, with her poem Colors of the Diaspora, as well as poems originally written in Farsi, Swahili and Amharic. The poems were translated by various, renowned translators, including Marilyn Hack, who translated Suleiman’s poem.
cactus fruit and wild thyme,
olive orchards, cypress trees...
we travel on your mountain tops
tethered by voices from suitcases
and the yaw of blackened keys.
Excerpt from Colors of the Diaspora by Zeina Azzam.
Loosely mirroring the journeys of refugees, the book is divided into five sections, the first, ‘Habeebi Just Take the Boat’ includes poems about the physical journey and the act of crossing borders. The sections that come after that deal with arrival, and the practices of documentation and archiving necessary to building a life afterwards.
Author Becky Thompson with residents of the Moria refugee camp in Greece, at one of the writing workshops she held there. Photo courtesy of Becky Thompson.
The book is very much attuned with the metaphor of the mirror that constitutes its title and main motif; the pages act as mirrors, the poems reflections of one another. It also provides a mirror for people who have never lived through that experience to, nonetheless, attempt to see themselves in it, and to be able to empathise with those who have. Poetry opens up the possibilities for interpretation, for empathy and for the breaking down of binary categories of refugee/citizen that cause a perceived insurmountable difference between the two polarised identities that make understanding – a prerequisite for action and any hope for change – appear impossible.
We are all suffering from some kind of headline/news fatigue, and it’s creating a disconnection that is fundamentally dangerous
“When it comes to the topic of refugees and migrants, it’s a problem of seeing, more than it is a problem of feeling, because you cannot connect with what you do not see,” Bseiso explains, touching upon the purpose that lies at the centre of the anthology, to make refugees’ names, voices and stories heard. Media has largely taken center stage in highlighting refugees’ plights on a daily basis, and statistics on displaced populations continue to rise in number, but those statistics do not do much to actually paint an image of their inner lives, their lives as they unfold, not on paper, but in the world, everyday. ”We are all suffering from some kind of headline/news fatigue, and it’s creating a disconnection that is fundamentally dangerous,” she adds.
“Our region is full of breaking news and burning borders. I think of poetry as an antidote. We need a way of understanding and seeing the world differently, and connecting with it differently, and poetry can give us that,” she adds. Poetry, in the way it lives on inventing and re-inventing expression, in metaphors, similes, or hyperbole, provides that almost infinite space of expression, which particularly helps in the case of displaced and exiled people whose lives - often always on the move - don’t allow room for much else to be done; other forms of expression are not as accessible to them to create. Novels need the luxury of time, and media needs the luxury of resources; but poetry is not as restricted.
It was very hard to keep track of some of the poets, to have poems submitted but then we couldn’t get consent because the people were already on the move [and we couldn’t reach them].
It is however, as Jehan and Becky - significantly - point out in the book, a forced/creative space. It is not a space of luxury, nor an armchair job where - as has been the case in other places in the world, in very different times - one uses their fountain pen to make commissioned poetry for the King or Queen; for displaced populations, it is a poetics of belonging, a space that they manifest in a counter-effort to the politics of belonging that define and demarcate their existence on a daily basis; an affirmation of that life that goes unseen to the rest of the world.
It is that forced aspect that made the two-year long process of writing and finishing the book an arduous process for both editors, not because of the work that went into it, but the heaviness that came with the nature of the work. “It was very hard to keep track of some of the poets, to have poems submitted but then we couldn’t get consent because the people were already on the move [and we couldn’t reach them]. That was really not easy, particularly because the poems were so moving, the experience was so vivid,” explains Jehan.
...forced stillness is as difficult as forced movement; being under siege and being held captive is as difficult as being forced to flee.
In order to create an anthology of work that captures a precarious life, precarity must unfortunately be a part of the process as well. Yet, with hope and perseverance, the book was written. And the writing became more than simply writing; it took on a new meaning: that of righting. “A lot of the pain of refugees and the suffering that they go through and the political stalemates that cause borders to close so that people are stuck or that they’re forced to move is not right. And that’s why it’s writing that is also righting, as in making right, hak [justice]... bringing back what is right.” A lot of the poems touch on these issues, exposing the cruel and brutal underbelly of borders, turning inside out the fraught bureaucratic and difficult assimilation processes that they and their loved ones have gone through, in writing.
The trees will seem barren
will seem heavy with fruit
will make you cry, like onions.
Your eyes will be fine. Remember
the name your parents gave you
has plenty of shade. Rest in it.
Excerpt from Naming things by Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck.
Making Mirrors also expands the meaning of “refugee", extending it beyond the way it has been misused and overused - criticising and challenging it. “I wrote once, but not in this book, a line that says, ‘nowhere refuge, only refugees,'" says Jehan. "[Because I was] trying to bring back a little the meaning of the word to the idea of refuge, of safety.” The overgeneralised term has indeed been made almost meaningless with the way it has been used for years in news and media, and often as a mere prefix to the unseemly “camp.”
The Moria refugee camp in Lesvos - where Thompson taught writing workshops - is one of the most overcrowded in the world; and chances for creative expression and any form of creative production are extremely limited.
The way “refugee” is used throughout the book is a venture back to that original meaning, to the word it draws from: refuge, with all the irony, paradoxes, and complexities that it now carries. The book, for instance, includes multiple poems by Palestinian poets who are living in the occupied territories. “They are in a sense refugees, because many of them are not living in the village and in the town that they originally come from because of the occupation. So we decided that places like Gaza, places like the West Bank, Haifa and Jaffa, where movement is restricted, should be included, because forced stillness is as difficult as forced movement; being under siege and being held captive is as difficult as being forced to flee.”
I believe in the power of culture, in the way that music and art and theatre can overcome and can make us resist and persist.
But Jehan repeats and repeats: “poetry is an antidote” - an antidote to a time severely marred by grievances and losses that are so ubiquitous to almost be unnoticed, unrecognised, and unfelt. An antidote to the oversaturation of news and headlines that do their job - to cover stories - but cause a numbness that lets the eyes gloss over them as though they were another billboard on a highway or another advert on TV. Yet there’s hope in poetry, in art and in culture; that hope was reiterated by Jehan time and time again. She tells me, defiantly: “I think of poetry as an antidote. I believe in the power of culture, in the way that music and art and theatre can overcome and can make us resist and persist.”
Main image courtesy of Amir Geshani.